Image credit: Artist Guy Laramee

September Lit News Round-up

While I’ve been running a little behind – hopefully this installment is worth it: this round-up is particularly packed with loads of fascinating, thought-provoking, and genre-bending news – including all the latest literary award nominations, a collection of in-depth articles on the legacy of F.S. Fitzgerald, the most interesting newly-released books, an eloquent and consoling piece on the process of writing for those who haven’t yet succeeded at being published, funny tweets by the literati, and more. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff going on in BookWorld the past two weeks. Enjoy! 

it’s red carpet season in Bibliowood

Over the past two weeks a slew of long and short lists for some of the most coveted literary awards have been announced, including:

  • The National Book Award Long List: You can read the full list in both nonfiction and fiction categories – with links to interviews, excerpts or book reviews – here at The Millions. On the fiction side, novels that caught my attention (and immediately added to my Goodreads shelf) included An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, Redeployment by Phil Klay, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Orfeo by Richard Powers, and Some Luck by literary icon Jane Smiley.
  • The Booker Prize – which generated buzz a few months ago when it’s longlist contained authors outside the UK for the first time – announced its shortlist, which included two Americans, Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, about a New York, atheistic dentist who is bad with women and stares at mortality every day looking at his patients’ decayed mouths. Dr. Paul O’Rourke becomes victim of identity theft by an obscure Israel-baed, religious sect called the Ulms; thus ensues a “riotous comedy of errors… [having] to do with his short, unhappy history with girls and women,” and which forces O’Rourke to “examine whether his own faith exists and what his beliefs are.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ouselves, which I actually did read this year, and adored – in part because it is based in Davis, Calif., and has to do with twins, albeit twins of the non-traditional sort – also made the short list. It’s about a girl who is raised with an adopted chimpanzee for a twin, as part of an experiment during the heyday of Skinnerian behavioral psychology (the 1970s). At age 5 loss of a sort we won’t reveal occurs and that is the novel’s central theme – a family’s disentegration in the wake of grief. Rosemary – the human twin – comes of age and attends college at UC Davis, trying to blend into a world where she never quite fits in.
  • The 21 MacAuthur Award recipients included some poets and authors: Samuel D. Hunter, 33, a New Yorker and the author of the widely produced 2012 play, “The Whale,” about a morbidly obese man; Terrance Hayes, 42, a poet and writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has already won a National Book Award for his collection Lighthead, which contains pop-culture and music themes; and Khaled Mattawa, 50, a translator and poet at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, born out of the agreements that ended the Bosnian war, awarded Bob Shacochis their fiction award for The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. Also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the novel is about American military intervention, the C.I.A., national security and incest—both literally and metaphorically. The plot centers around a father-daughter pair of spies, spans five decades, and looks at the war on terror and atrocities committed in its pursuit. Judge Michelle Laitolais, writing about the book, said its most disturbing theme is how it presents America’s identity as a country which stands up for freedom and peace being always embedded in a background of “the compromised psychological circuitry of any human endeavor, whether for good or ill,” as well as “The novel’s insistense on grounding its story in human perversion.” Said the Washington Post: Shacochis “creates an intricate portrait of the catastrophic events that have led to an endless cycle of vengeance and war between cultures.” For Nonfiction: UC Davis law professor and human rights activist Karima Bennoune won for Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, which is an “account of the legions of Muslims whose struggles against fundamentalist violence are almost never reported in our media….” Read here the Washington Post and Dayton Literary Prize write-ups.
  • Amtrak has begun offering an interesting new writers’ residency program where they offer long roundtrip rides aboard their trains where authors while away the time writing. The trips include a variety of routes. The program was originally inspired when a few writers began tweeting Amtrak about how they liked the creative environment trains provide for the process of writing. Twenty-four writers were selected to participate in this first launch, which follows a test-run experienced by writer Jessica Gross, who wrote about for The Paris Review. You can read more about the program and riders at Amtrak & NPR.
  • The BBC Short Story Award Shortlist came out and was dominated by women. Nominees include Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley, The Taxidermist’s Daughterby Francesca Rhydderch, Kilifi Creek by Lionel Shriver, Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets by Zadie Smith and The American Lover by Rose Tremain.

NEW BOOKS 

  • Of course, the release of Hilary Mantel’s first short story collection, The Assasination of Margaret Thatcher, has dominated book news the past week. It includes ten stories (set in contemporary times), all of which have been previously published save for the title story, which Mantel – famous for her Booker Prize-winnning “Wolf Hall” series centering on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand-man – began 30 years ago and only finished after Thatcher’s death. A Mantel interview/review at The Millions states the stories “range from the subtly sinister to the outrageously gothic.” The title story, which is causing much furor in the UK, particularly from conservatives, is about a woman who is visited by an IRA assassin disguised as a plumber come to fix her boiler. The assassin holds the woman hostage to carry out his mission, but she doesn’t really mind because she’s no fan of Thatcher’s, either. (You can read this story, which the New York Times printed last weekend, here.)  Says The Millions’ Damian Barr: “It’s an unexpectedly funny exploration of the Maggie mythos delivered with sniper-like skill. It’s a horror story for her fans, a fantasy for her detractors. Either way, it’s shocking. Her tale is a true character assassination.” Mantel has this very interesting thing to say about Thatcher & feminism: “It’s true, no one can now say a woman can’t run the country but I think she set back the cause of women in public life. She imitated masculine quantities to the extent that she had to get herself a good war. It [The Falklands] was great stuff—limited casualties, little impact on the Home Front and great visual propaganda. I am not suggesting this was conscious. I suspect Thatcher was the last person in the world to be able to examine her inner life but she could sell a myth. The idea that women must imitate men to succeed is anti-feminist. She was not of woman born. She was a psychological transvestite.” The Times review of the collection as a whole seems to stake a middle ground, stating while the stories’ characters are more like Mantel herself than the Machiavellian Cromwell, their quality doesn’t quite match up to her novels.
  • David Cronenberg, normally known for directing creepy films such as “The Fly” and “Naked Lunch,” was also in book news a lot this week for the release of his first novel, Consumed. Read the NPR review here. Cronenberg, who likes to explore how “the resemblence between illness and sexuality becomes a metaphor for our relationship to our technologies – including the arts,” says NPR’s Jonathan Lethem, has written a novel about two lovers who are journalists obsessed with scandal and social media. One (Naomi) goes to Paris to look into the bizarre murder of a Marxist philosopher, whose husband is a primary suspect, while the other (Nathan) heads to Budapest to photograph the work of an unlicensed surgeon formerly involved in organ trafficking; he contracts a rare STD and in his quest to find the man who discovered the syndrome he ends up in Toronto, where additional secrets loom. Concludes the publisher’s summary: “These parallel narratives become entwined in a gripping, dreamlike plot that involves geopolitics, 3-D printing, North Korea, the Cannes Film Festival, cancer, and, in an incredible number of varieties, sex.” Here also is the NY Times review.
  • The forthcoming J, by Howard Jacobson – already published in the UK and a finalist for the Booker Prize – has received a lot of buzz and is being called a British dystopian novel akin to American classics 1984 and A Brave New World. (Its U.S. release date is Oct. 14. Jacobson has already won the Booker Prize for his 2010 novel The Finkler Question.) Says the Amazon summary: “Set in a world where collective memory has vanished and the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited, J is a boldly inventive love story, both tender and terrifying.” The apocalyptic tale involves two young people who fall in love in a village that remains following some mysterious historic catastrophe. The UK’s Independent calls the book “A snarling, effervescent and ambitious philosophical work of fiction that poses unsettling questions about our sense of history, and our self-satisfied orthodoxies,” and the Telegraph said its dystopia is unique for “turning the focus within: the ruins here are the ruins of language, imagination, love itself.”
  • Bone Clocks by well-known author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) is also now out. The NPR review calls it a fantasy novel that is “an odyssey into the dark side, spanning from 1984 to 2043… about a teenager who runs away from her London home and becomes prey to a ghastly gang of mystics.” Jumping back and forth between time periods like Mitchell’s other novels, its main draw is the drama related to central character Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old Londoner when we meet her. She also happens to have the gift of second sight. Sykes runs away from her working-class home and becomes prey to a gang of mystics known as the Anchorites, who survive by swallowing souls. While the book, in Mitchell’s typical style,  includes various narratives about characters such as a con artist, journalist addicted to the thrill of fear, and “bad-boy British novelist, they all eventually link to Holly. A major theme is mortality. Reviewer Maureen Corrigan concludes with: “As a novel, The Bone Clocks itself is a labyrinth, offering readers, not a defense against death of course, but the chance to step out of time for a while and into a world richer and stranger than most of us can imagine.”
  • Other books out last week that caught my eye include *Wittgenstein Jr. by Lars Iyer; in part a satire of life at Cambridge, it focuses largely on the life of a philosophy professor whose brother committed suicide and says he now “means to enter the region in which his brother lost his mind, and to come back out.” *F by Daniel Kehlmann (translated from German) about a father who, after being hypnotized and told to “change everything,” leaves his family to pursue and achieve his dream of becoming a famous writer. From there the novel follows the lives of his now three, grown sons: a faithless priest, a pyramid-schemer and an art forger. *Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, by Mary M. Talbot and Kate Charlesworth, a graphic novel about women’s suffragettes. The NPR review calls it “a rousing and historically accurate graphic novel” – and, that “by depicting suffragettes’ most death-defying escapades in comic form, [the authors] manage to breathe new life into the story.”
  • Roberto Bolona – the Latin American novelist who died in 2003 and is known for such acclaimed works as The Savage Detectives and 2666 – has a newly translated novella out, A Little Lumpen Novelita, about a teenage girl and her brother who become orphans when their parents die in a car accident, and subsequently are drawn into a life of crime. The themes center around characters forced to choose between what’s “right” and “depravity.” Says reviewer Juan Vidal, the novella “is among Bolano’s most intoxicating works. Obsessive and ambiguous, its open-ended nature is reflective not only of the protagonist but of the author himself. And it further cements him as a master of the form, of any form.” Read  Vidal’s NPR review here.
  • It took Irish writer Eimear McBride ten years to find a publisher for A Girl is Half-formed Thing but it is receiving rave reviews. The novel is narrated in third person by an unnamed girl who grows up with a disabled brother and religiously-punitive mother. She is raped at 13 by her uncle, and her brother dies of cancer in his 20’s. She goes on to seek out violent encounters with both her uncle and other men to drown out the pain. The narrative is written to the woman’s brother – the “you” in the book. The language cares nothing for punctuation and becomes increasingly fractured as the story unfolds.  Says NPR: it is a “raw, visceral, brutally intense neomodernist first novel… about a young unnamed narrator’s attempt to drown mental anguish with physical pain.” The novel has already won both the Goldsmiths and Baileys Women’s prizes and the NY Times has called it a “future classic” about how the “narrator’s unbridled fluency, which is her vitality, [opposes] the myriad forces — the family, nuns, priests and men, many men — that would arrest it into clauses, laws, rules and diagnoses, and it’s this opposition that provides the cohering drama… [it] subjects the outer language the world expects of us to the inner syntaxes that are natural to our minds, and in doing so refuses to equate universal experience with universal expression — a false religion that has oppressed most contemporary literature, and most contemporary souls.” Warning: The novel does – if it wasn’t already obvious – contain graphic sexual violence.
  • A nonfiction book of note is Kerry Howley’s “Thrown,” which Publisher’s Weekly called a debut that “threatens to remap the entire genre of nonfiction.” Howley is a philosophy student who immerses herself in the world/culture of mixed-martial-arts fighting in an attempt to find the closest equivalent to Schopenhauer’s concept of ecstatic experience. Read the review here.
  • While I don’t normally pay too much attention to newly-released children’s books, this The Atlantic interview with B.J. Novak (formerly of the “The Office) about his Book With No Pictures cracked me up. The book is true to its title and devoid of graphics, but seems certain to entertain children and parents alike, nonetheless. “The joke is that the grown-up has to say every outrageous thing on the page, which makes the kid feel like an evil genius,” writes The Atlantic. Those “outrageous things” include sentences like: “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo-Boo Butt.” Novak said, “If the adult had to say silly things, I knew the kid would feel very powerful and would feel that books are very powerful. Working backwards, I realized that if there were no pictures, it would be an even more delightful trick: The kid is taking a grown-up style book and using it against the grown-up.” Novak built in effects to help parents with comedic timing, such as putting page breaks in places where a comedian would pause. Novak also put in stage directions as part of the act: “There are small words underneath the big words that indicate the under-the-breath comment of a parent: ‘I didn’t want to read those words! What kind of a book is this?’ It’s sort of an aside, but you say it loud enough so the kid can hear it.”
  • I didn’t have time to fully look at the NY Times Sunday Review in my haste to get out this round-up but this tidbit certainly caught my attention: Literary biographer Philip Weinstein (known for his books on masters like Faulkner, Proust & Kafka) has written an “in-depth study” of the life and work of Jonathan Franzen, to be published by Bloomsbury next fall. Both the author and his subject attended Swarthmore College and are apparently “casual acquaintances.” Weinstein said the book is not intended to be a full-scale biography.
  • In other news, I absolutely refuse to even mention Lena Dunham’s much-hyped and over-publicized Not That Kind of Girl. Damn it. I just did.

LITERARY FEASTS

My beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald turned 118 last Wednesday and there have been a plethora of interesting stories and tidbits published on his work and life this past month. Here are just a few:

  • This New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik ponders why both Fitzgerald and wife Zelda continue to inspire new books, what the couple represented about their times, and who Fitzgerald really was, among other things. Gopnik says while Fitzgerald was often taken as an average writer who “occasionally stumbled on beauty,” his observational perspicuity was in fact keener and shrewder than most of his colleagues: “The thing that escapes Fitzgerald’s myth is precisely his intelligence, the kind of generalizing intelligence instantly apparent in his notebooks.” Gopnik summarizes recent publications as being basically divided of two types: The first aim “at remaking Fitzgerald as a pop artist, salvaged from being taken too seriously and made over literary,” and the second type aim at portraying Zelda as an artist thwarted by the “patriarchal brutalities of her time.” Books out include John T. Irwin’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fiction; Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling novel Z (narrated by Zelda), and Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read on: How the ‘Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why it Endures. Speaking of the latter, here is Fresh Air’s interview with Corrigan on that book, in which Corrigan explains how what was originally a flop became a classic and bestseller: Among other things its message that it’s “admirable” to try and overcome one’s own fate; its similarities to film noir; and its sending, along with some other novels, oversees to Army and Navy soldiers during World War II.
  • Via Letters of Note, read this charming epistle from Fitzgerald to daughter Scottie when she was away at camp in 1933. One moving quote: “I am glad you are happy — but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life. All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Make sure to read the whole letter! Fitzgerald’s lists, including “things to think about,” “things to worry about,” and “things not to worry about” offer priceless wisdom to an 11-year-old girl.
  • Salon has an article about a lit professor who has posed the theory Fitzgerald wrote character Jay Gatsby as a pale black person trying to pass as white. The Medgar Evers College (Brooklyn, N.Y) scholar, Carlyle Thompson, has written a paper on this theory which has yet to be accepted for publication by any academic journal. He presented it at a spring meeting of the College English Association in Charleston, South Carolina. Thompson sees racial anxiety as the central narrative tension of the book, and Gatsby’s blackness as a “manifestation of Fitzgerald’s deep-seated apprehensions concerning miscegenation between blacks and whites.” Foremost Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli calls the idea absurd, as does Charles Scribner III whose family firm, Charles Scribner’s, was Fitzgerald’s publisher.
  • In sum fun news, thanks to Twitter I discovered a Great Gatsby video game! Mental Floss, in reporting the find said, “Finally, a game where it makes sense to collect gold coins. As Nick Carraway from Fitzgerald’s novel, you frolic about dodging flappers, jumping on train cars, and fighting Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s glasses between animated scenes from the book. Though initially presented as a long-lost Nintendo game, it was actually made by developers from San Francisco in 2011. Read a blurb on this and other literary video games at The Week here or play it yourself here!

Other lovely literary articles I ran across the past couple weeks include: 

  • Sept. 12 marked the 6-year anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s suicide. Openculture contributer Josh Jones marked it by posting a thoughtful article on DFW’s work, legacy and person, interspersed with video clips of Wallace reading his own essays and short fiction. You can find it here. By following some links on this site, I also discovered that the University of Texas at Austin has digitally archived some of DFW’s teaching materials at Pomona College and Illinois State University, which includes great stuff such as this 1994 syllabus for an English class in which Wallace tried to teach the process of analyzing prose fiction by dissecting “lightweight books.” You can visit the archive here or read about that funny syllabus, written in DFW’s typically unconventional style, here.
  • Last week’s edition of “Bookends” (NY Times) featured a discussion between Zoe Heller and Leslie Jamison about whether writers should avoid the alleged “cardinal sin” of sentimentality. Choice observations on the debate include Heller’s “The distinctive characteristic of sentimental art is not, as is sometimes claimed, that it ‘manipulates’ (all art does this in some measure) but that it manipulates by knowingly simplifying, Photoshopping or otherwise distorting the human experience it purports to represent.” For example, Dickens’ portrayal of orphans in Bleak House is sentimental, says Heller, because it is “idealizing and prettifying what is to be pitied. Says Jamison, “What [is] the difference between a sentimental story and a courageously emotive one?… Resisting sentimentality means resisting exaggeration and oversimplification; it means resisting flat tragedy and crude emotional manipulation — the cheapening of feeling, the pulling of heartstrings. But I would argue that one of the deep unspoken fears beneath the sentimentality taboo is really the fear of commonality: the fear of being just like everyone else or telling a story just like everyone else’s.” Amen to that.
  • Having never heard of Michelle Huneven, and frankly being tired of hearing published, acclaimed authors whine about writing – let us unpublished writers get some coveted print space on the issue, maybe? – I was initially leery of even looking at her article,  “The Trouble With Writing”.  But it’s actually a very nice and consoling piece on the process of writing for those of us who doubt ourselves following decades of “wannabe” writer status who have yet to publish any substantial work – rather be it due to the lack of discipline, insecurity, or dearth of time or, on the other hand, possessing loads of good work but never being lucky enough to find a publisher. It took Huneven herself 22 years to complete her first novel. This article, posted on The Millions, was adapted from a keynote address Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, last June. The piece contains many comforting lines of wisdom; some of the most profound, for me, included:
    • ”The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death.”
    • Talking about late feminist theologian Mary Daley, Huneven says: “Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: ‘I have to turn my soul around’… To write, you have to turn your soul around. And then you have to turn it around again, and again, because there’s always slippage. Even after dozens of years of writing, there is slippage.”
    • ”The Trouble with Writing is thatit is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride”– these qualities are, unfortunately, simply inherent in the creative process itself, says Huneven, and writers shouldn’t think the feelings are unique to themselves nor signs of some psychological issue.
    • Hunevan concludes with this lovely ending: “The trouble with writing is writing. So keep going. Keep the faith. Go home to your desks and get yourself into some deep deep, trouble. And then write your way out of it.”
  • Here’s an interesting article and letter, via Openculture and Letters of Note about Carl Jung’s review of Ulysses. He seems at first to damn Ulysses with some faint praise and much scathing criticism in a 1932 essay for Europaische Revue, but in the end admits to its brilliance. Jung sent a copy of the essay along with a personal letter to Joyce. Read about both here.

MISCELLANY

  • Another great find at The Millions: A collection of the best tweets from the literati over the past year. Says the summary: “A handful of well-known authors have acquired big followings on the platform, a result not just of their name recognition but of their mastery of the tweet, as well…Looking at which Tweets got the most favorites, we are highlighting each literary Twitterer’s best tweet. Here you’ll find much wry humor, gossip, lots of politics, Margaret Atwood flirting with a Twitter-famous comedian, and even a surprising amount of insight crammed into 140 characters. They may be enough to win over some fresh converts.” Some notable tweets include Joyce Carol Oates, “Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL,” Teju Cole’s “Every 60 seconds in Africa, a minute passes. We can put a stop to this. Please retweet,” Doug Coupland’s “Found this genius quote on Reddit today: Getting offended is a great way to avoid answering questions that make you sound dumb,” and the Paris Review’s, ““Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person.”-Nora Ephron
  • As you have probably already noticed, much of the news included in this article has come from openculture.com – a site I just discovered a couple weeks ago. So here’s a quick summary: They bill themselves as providing “the best free cultural & educational media on the web” – including online courses, movies, e-books, textbooks, language lessons and more. The site was created in 2006 and its lead editor is the SF Bay area’s very own Dan Colman, Director & Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program – although the site is not affiliated with Stanford. It is further maintained by a group of about ten contributors. On a side note: in honor of Banned Books Week (last week), Openculture offered 14 books to read online free that have been banned at some point in the past but are now on Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels list (examples: Slaughterhouse Five; 1984; In Cold Blood; Ulysses).
  • I ran across a couple of interesting projects which are attempting to expand the bounds traditional story telling by combining mediums. The include Unbinding the Book, a collaboration between the independent publishing platform Blurb and the visual arts studio Jotta. Nine commissioned artists are putting together such projects as a radio book that transmits the contents of a book; an Edgar Allen Poe short story redesigned so that it must be read by two people simultaneously, the forced exchange of information designed to challenge the idea that reading must be a solitary act; and an illuminated book where light from hidden LEDs make text float above objects that relate to the narrative. There will be exhibitions in both Europe and N. America. I also discovered a story about “literary architecture,” in which students, guided by artist Matteo Pericoli, create physical models of literary texts. Really cool images.

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